Italy is paving the way for a global food revolution

Italy is paving the way for a global food revolution

Ask anyone what comes to mind when they think about Italy and you’re likely to get an earful about its beautiful art and architecture, forward-thinking fashion designers and, of course, food. After all, Italy gave the world espresso, pasta, gelato, pizza and many of your favourite pastries, to name but a very few of its culinary contributions. And heaven forbid we forget about the wine!

What might be somewhat lesser known, however, is that Italy is laying the groundwork for a food revolution. Few who aren’t in the know are aware that the country is a leading builder and exporter of food packaging and processing equipment that help companies the world over innovate and make strides in their respective markets. In 2016 alone, Italy produced over $8.5 billion (CAD) worth of packaging machinery and $7.5 billion worth of food processing technology, exporting 80% of the former and 70% of the latter.

What might also be unknown is that the country’s innovation ecosystem is hard at work devising innovative solutions to the world’s growing food woes. In fact, the Italian movement to innovate in food and agriculture is picking up steam and cross-pollinating in various parts of Europe, with startups at its helm.

 

A hotbed of machinery and equipment innovation

You’d be forgiven for thinking of Germany, Japan or Korea anytime the words “machinery and equipment” are mentioned – these countries are home to machinery juggernauts. But Italy has something they don’t.

“Italian machinery and equipment makers are a lot nimbler,” says Matteo Picariello, the Italian Trade Commissioner to Canada. “Italian companies using their products are typically medium-sized, family-owned businesses with very specific needs – they need their equipment to execute precise tasks. To fit with the market, Italian machinery makers have to customize every machine to their clients’ needs. There’s no one size fits all.”

Creating custom-made machines comes with an incomparable advantage: knowledge. Constantly tweaking and remodelling machinery grants Italian equipment manufacturers a deeper understanding of both their products and their market. This knowledge benefits Italy’s food industry as a whole, as food manufacturers in turn use this personalized equipment to craft better products, fill the needs of their own customers and innovate.

“What we’re also seeing is Italian food manufacturers being mostly medium-sized; they’re able to integrate new technology faster and more efficiently than the giants. That allows them to innovate better and quicker, which gives them a leading edge,” Picariello adds.

 

Reimagining the global food system

Innovation in food and agriculture is capturing a lot of attention within Italy’s startup ecosystem, and for good reason.

“Sixty-six percent of the global population will live in cities by 2050,” says Sharon Cittone, Seeds & Chips Chief Content Officer (Seeds & Chips hosts a yearly food innovation summit in Milan, Italy). “By that year, we’ll have close to 10 billion people to feed on this planet. There are issues that need to be considered, and this needs to happen now.”

“Our food system is broken. The idea isn’t to sustain it, but to regenerate it, and that’s precisely what a lot of Italian startups are working on right now,” Cittone adds.

Areas piquing these Italian entrepreneurs’ interest are plenty. Precision agriculture, for one, attracts many consummate innovators. Most of the world’s agriculture being traditional, the sector is ripe for game-changing tech. What if a farmer could use sensors, big data and predictive analytics to know exactly when to plant, water and fertilize crops? Could technology be able to pinpoint sick plants or patches? Could AI automate irrigation?

Other Italian innovators cater to consumers, specifically in the field of personalized nutrition.

“The idea that, with a blood sample or a DNA analysis, a person could get a personalized, targeted diet plan elaborated for them generates a lot of interest,” says Cittone. “This type of nutrition counselling doesn’t address you as part of a group, but as a person with very specific nutritional needs, intolerances or allergies, and I think it’s very compelling for the future.”

Asked to describe Italian entrepreneurs in a few words, there is no hesitation in Cittone’s answer: “They’re forward-thinking activists. Game-changers.”

Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, reinventing our food system is no short-term project. But Italy’s machinery manufacturers and food innovators sure are on the path towards making this moonshot a reality.

A delegation of Italian food-sector innovators, along with representatives of the Italian Trade Commission and Seed & Chips, will be participating in C2 Montréal 2018. Here are the companies that will be joining the event: